I’m a bit surprised to find myself beginning a series of reflections on That All Shall Be Saved by David Bentley Hart. The book has already generated a copiosity of reviews from theologians and internet cognoscenti. Eclectic Orthodoxy has hosted a goodly number of them. Surely there is not much more interesting to say. Nevertheless, I need to add my voice to the cacophony. In this series I intend to highlight specific arguments and lines of thought advanced by Hart that I find compelling, challenging, evocative. Sometimes we miss the trees for the forest.
Hart begins his reflections with the classic Christian doctrine of the creatio ex nihilo. The doctrine declares that the infinite and perfect God created the cosmos in absolute freedom, without need of anything outside himself. On this all orthodox Christians may agree. But Hart then draws our attention to an often overlooked feature of the divine act—namely, its telos and goal:
Perhaps the first theological insight I learned from Gregory of Nyssa is that the Christian doctrine of creatio ex nihilo is not merely a cosmological or metaphysical claim, but also an eschatological claim about the world’s relation to God, and for that reason a moral claim about the nature of God in himself. In the end of all things is their beginning, and only from the perspective of the end can one know what they are, why they have been made, and who the God is who has called them forth from nothingness. Anything willingly done is done toward an end; and anything done toward an end is defined by that end. (p. 68)
The meaning of the cosmos is revealed in its consummation. The beginning is directed toward the eschaton, and the eschaton contains the beginning. There’s nothing particularly obscure about this observation. Every good story journeys to a fitting conclusion. Narrative threads and character arcs are brought to satisfying closure. Quests are fulfilled, lovers united, conflicts resolved, rewards and punishments meted out, truths revealed and falsehoods exposed, important questions answered—and if they are not, we see why this too was necessary. If the conclusion fails to provide the fulfillment the story demands, which our aesthetic enjoyment demands, then the story, as well as its telling, is called into question. A bad ending can ruin a tale. (Just ask an avid Game of Thrones fan what he or she thought about season 8.) The obverse is also true: a good ending can save a problematic story. We hope that our lives constitute a coherent narrative, that they are more than a series of plotless happenings; we hope that somehow our ending will justify our beginning. If Macbeth is right, and life should prove to be nothing more than “a tale / Told by an idiot, full of sound and fury, / Signifying nothing,” then it was never worth the telling. The end is where we start from.
The God of the Bible creates from the final future—the final future that is himself—in his timeless telling of the cosmos. “I am the alpha and the omega, the beginning and the end” (Rev 22:13). The infinite and ineffable divinity bespeaks himself in the reflective mode of finitude. All is theophany. All is divine self-presentation and icon. For this reason the eschaton constitutes the ultimate manifestation of the divine character. This is probably more me speaking than Hart, so let’s quote the metaphysical wizard himself (warning: super-long citation coming—sorry):
Here my particular concern is the general principle that the doctrine of creation constitutes an assertion regarding the eternal identity of God. The doctrine in itself is, after all, chiefly an affirmation of God’s absolute dispositive liberty in all his acts—the absence, that is, of any external restraint upon or necessity behind every action of his will. And, while one must avoid the pathetic anthropomorphism of imagining God’s resolve to create as an arbitrary choice made after deliberation among options, one must still affirm that it is free, that creation can add nothing to God, that God’s being is not dependent on the world’s, and that the only “necessity” present in the divine act of creation is the impossibility of any hindrance being placed upon God’s expression of his own goodness in making the world. Yet, for just this reason, the moral destiny of creation and the moral nature of God are absolutely inseparable. As the transcendent Good beyond all beings, God is also the transcendental end that makes every single action of any rational nature possible. Moreover, the end toward which he acts must be his own goodness; for he is himself the beginning and end of all things. This is not to deny that, in addition to the “primary causality” of God’s act of creation, there are innumerable forms of “secondary causality” operative within the created order; but none of these can exceed or escape the one end toward which the first cause directs all things. And this eternal teleology that ultimately governs every action in creation, viewed from the vantage of history, takes the form of a cosmic eschatology. Seen as an eternal act of God, creation’s term is the divine nature for which all things were made; seen from within the orientation of time, its term is the “final judgment” that brings all things to their true conclusion.
Moreover, no matter how great the autonomy one grants the realm of secondary causes, two things are certain. First, as God’s act of creation is free, constrained by neither necessity nor ignorance, all contingent ends are intentionally enfolded within his decision. And, second, precisely because God in himself is absolute—“absolved,”that is, of every pathos of the contingent, every “affect”of the sort that a finite substance has the power to visit upon another—his moral “venture” in creating is infinite. One way or another, after all, all causes are logically reducible to their first cause. This is no more than a logical truism. And it does not matter whether one construes the relation between primary and secondary causality as one of total determinism or as one of utter indeterminacy, for in either case all “consequents” are—either as actualities or merely as possibilities—contingent upon their primordial “antecedent,” apart from which they could not exist. And, naturally, the rationale of a first cause—its “definition,” in the most etymologically exact meaning of that term—is the final cause that prompts it, the end toward which it acts. If, then, that first cause is an infinitely free act emerging from an infinite wisdom, all those consequents are intentionally entailed—again, either as actualities or as possibilities—within that first act; and so the final end to which that act tends is its whole moral truth. The traditional ontological definition of evil as a privatio boni—a privation of the good lacking any essence of its own—is not merely a logically necessary metaphysical axiom about the transcendental structure of being; it is also an assertion that, when we say “God is good,” we are speaking of him not only relative to his creation, but (however apophatically) as he is in himself. All comes from God, and so evil cannot be a “thing” that comes from anywhere. Evil is, in every case, merely the defect whereby a substantial good is lost, belied, or resisted. For in every sense being is act, and God, in his simplicity and infinite freedom, is what he does. He could not be the creator of anything substantially evil without evil also being part of the definition of who he essentially is; for he alone is the wellspring of all that exists.
God goes forth in all beings and in all beings returns to himself, as even Aquinas (following a long Christian tradition) affirms; but God also does this not as an expression of his dialectical struggle with some recalcitrant exteriority—some external obstacle to be surmounted or some unrealized possibility to be achieved—but rather as the manifestation of an inexhaustible power wholly possessed by the divine in peaceful liberty in eternity. God has no need of the world; he creates it not because he is dependent upon it, but because its dependency on him is a fitting expression of the bounty of his goodness. So all that the doctrine of creation adds to the basic metaphysical picture is the further assurance that in this divine outpouring there is no element of the “irrational”: nothing purely spontaneous, or organic, or even mechanical, beyond the power of God’s rational freedom. This, however, also means that within the story of creation, viewed from its final cause, there can be no residue of the pardonably tragic, no irrecuperable or irreconcilable remainder left behind at the end of the tale; for, if there were, this irreconcilable excess would also be something God has directly caused, as an entailment freely assumed in his act of creating, and so as an expression of who he freely is. This is no more than the simple logic of the absolute. (pp. 69-72)
This is a crucial passage for our understanding of Hart’s universalism. Let’s try to unpack it.
1) The doctrine of creatio ex nihilo asserts the absolute liberty of the Creator in all of his acts. As the infinite plenitude of Being, God did not need to create the cosmos to fill something that was lacking in his life (remember—no passive potency) and having created it he does not find that his happiness and bliss have been increased. Moreover, not only does God enjoy absolute freedom to create, or not create, the cosmos; but he also enjoys absolute freedom in what kind of cosmos to create. He is not subject to constraints outside himself.
Nothing remarkable so far. This is just the classical doctrine of divine aseity which Hart has so ably presented in The Experience of God.
2) God eternally wills himself as the Good, and his willing of the cosmos is encompassed within this eternal self-willing. The purpose, telos, goal, consummation, and end of the divine act of creation is the Good; or to put it in the language of Aristotle, God is the final cause of creation. The cosmos is created by Love for consummation in Love.
3) God does not create evil. Only goodness flows from God. For this reason the classical theologians of the Christian tradition have understood evil as a privation of being, a defect, lack, surd, nothingness. The presence of evil within God’s good creation urgently raises the question of theodicy. The question cannot be banished with a mere wave of a philosophical wand. Evil will always be the greatest challenge to faith, both intellectually and existentially. It’s one thing to acknowledge, and suffer, evil’s presence in the temporal order; it’s quite another thing to assert its eschatological perdurance.
4) The eschaton, therefore, necessarily and definitively reveals the character and identity of the Creator. The conclusion of the story can neither surprise nor disappoint him, for the conclusion is willed in the initial act of creation. Hence the presence of evil in the eschaton is quite impossible. In Hart’s words: “He could not be the creator of anything substantially evil without evil also being part of the definition of who he essentially is.” Here is the crucial Hartian claim: if everlasting perdition belongs to the climax of the cosmic narrative, then it was so intended by God from the beginning. Every free act is teleologically directed and therefore defined by its final cause. The inference cannot be avoided. After all, nothing compelled God to create this particular universe with this particular eschaton, and the omnipotence–omniscience combo precludes divine failure. If hell was intended, then it is good and inheres in the Good; if hell is intended, then hell becomes God.
To summarize: in his goodness the triune God creates the cosmos for consummation in his infinite goodness. All comes from Love and returns to Love. The Creator is both material cause and final cause. The eschaton, therefore, is not simply the climax of a story. It is the final revelation of the Father, Son, and Holy Spirit in the fullness of their lordship and glory. In the words of the Apostle:
And, when all things have been subordinated to him, then will the Son himself also be subordinated to the one who has subordinated all things to him, so that God may be all in all. (1 Cor 15:28)
God will be all in all. This is the eschatological promise. How then hell everlasting?
The above reasoning leads Hart to the conclusion that a pernicious incoherence lies deep within the theological tradition. For the past 1500 years the Church has asserted three claims:
- God freely created the cosmos ex nihilo.
- God is the Good and wills only the good.
- God will condemn a portion of his rational creatures to everlasting torment.
Two of these propositions may be rationally held without contradiction, argues Hart, but not all three simultaneously. Yet the Church has attempted to hold the three together, thereby causing far-reaching mischief. If God wills hell, he cannot be genuinely good:
This is not a complicated issue, it seems to me: The eternal perdition—the eternal suffering—of any soul would be an abominable tragedy, and therefore a profound natural evil; this much is stated quite clearly by scripture, in asserting that God “intends all human beings to be saved and to come to a full knowledge of truth” (1 Timothy 2:4). A natural evil, however, becomes a moral evil precisely to the degree that it is the positive intention, even if only conditionally, of a rational will. God could not, then, directly intend a soul’s ultimate destruction, or even intend that a soul bring about its own destruction, without positively willing the evil end as an evil end; such a result could not possibly be comprised within the ends purposed by a truly good will (in any sense of the word “good” intelligible to us). Yet, if both the doctrine of creatio ex nihilo and that of eternal damnation are true, that very evil is indeed already comprised within the positive intentions and dispositions of God. No refuge is offered here by some specious distinction between God’s antecedent and consequent wills—between, that is, his universal will for creation apart from the fall and his particular will regarding each creature in consequence of the fall. Under the canopy of God’s omnipotence and omniscience, the consequent is already wholly virtually present in the antecedent. (pp. 81-82)
David Bentley Hart is hardly the first person in the history of the Church to see the illogic in asserting both the infinite goodness of the Creator and eternal damnation. No one saw this more clearly than St Isaac of Nineveh in the seventh century. “It is not the way of the compassionate Maker,” he declared, “to create rational beings in order to deliver them over mercilessly to unending affliction in punishment for things of which He knew even before they were fashioned, aware how they would turn out when He created them—and whom nonetheless He created” (Discourses II.39.6).